No, I’m not talking secret agents; the likes of MI5 or MI6.
I'm talking literary agents.
The type that deal in books.
Someone once said to me that to get a publisher, you first need an agent.
And to get an agent…
You need another agent...
An agent’s job is to sell your book to a publisher. They’re like a middleman. They make introductions and take a cut of whatever an author is selling.
The publishers say that an agent will weed out the dross, then find and shape those hidden gems for them, in order to deliver a quality product.
Today I heard one publisher say, ‘I wouldn’t touch a story unless it had come from an agent.’
It struck me that it was like a journalist saying they wouldn’t speak to a member of the public about an important news story unless through a middleman.
Imagine you’re an eyewitness to a volcano erupting in Inverness or Idaho.
You know that the BBC or CNN will be looking for people to give their version of events.
And you're desperate to share your incredible account with the world - exactly what the news channels are looking for.
But no, you can’t speak live to the journalist covering the story because you need to find an agent. Someone to vet you and your tale and ‘shape it' before you can even get near the media.
And for the privilege of telling how lava rained from the sky and destroyed your new carpet, the news channel will pay you a fee for your time and travel expenses.
But no, you aren’t allowed to keep all that – you’ve got to pay ten or twenty per cent to an agent.
If that were the case, how would the newspapers and news channels ever file a story?
So what’s the point of an agent? And why have publishers traditionally relied upon them to do all the legwork?
Well, publishers have a wish-list. They are looking to buy things they believe will sell, based on trends that have worked in the past and what they think is in vogue. And they only have so much money to spend and so many titles they can acquire. They look to agents to provide books for their wish-list as if they were supplying the answers to a crossword. Basically everything has to fit.
For instance, not so long ago I had an agent asking if I could write something about space exploration. Never mind that I had spent twenty years in the police and written a couple of detective novels based on my experiences. Could I do her a thriller with an astronaut as a lead protagonist, because ‘The Martian’ was very on-trend right now? She liked my style of writing and desperately wanted something space-related to fit publishing wish-lists. Sadly I have zero knowledge of life as an astronaut and had to politely decline.
I offered the agent my detective novels, books on subjects which I could write knowledgeably about, but she said no. The publishers' lists were full of crime books. She needed astronauts. So did that mean that my skills and ideas were no good?
That’s like an estate agent/realtor telling me that they wouldn’t be able to sell my existing house, but would I mind just knocking it down, then designing and building a different one from scratch, with a swimming pool in the back garden – because that’s what buyers were looking for.
Not all publishers have the time to find and 'package' a story. And when big money must be put down for print runs and advertising, publishers cannot rely on their gut instincts alone. They need the confidence, the buzzwords and 'seal of approval' that an agent brings.
Ever Diminishing Advances
Agents take a percentage of what they can sell a book for. But today, as most authors well know, payments from publishing houses in advance of a book being released are steadily diminishing.
Publishers and agents, between them, try to decide what they think the market needs and wants. Some are risk averse, whilst some simply follow the crowd - like the astronaut agent. And of course, sometimes it's the age old issue of 'not what you know, but who you know,' that gets a book onto bookshelves.
Agents are no longer the entire marketplace. The global reach of each and every one of us via the internet means that we can let the market judge for itself whether what we’re writing and selling is entertaining or thought-provoking, or enjoyable or thrilling… or not.
Other sectors are evolving in a similar way. Returning to the property market for a moment - we can see how estate agents/realtors are losing out to internet portals. In the UK, vendors are already selling their own homes direct to the market, online - eliminating the need for an agent.
Nobody would say that a home sold without an estate agent is sub-standard.
But for some publishers, books without a literary agent are just that.
Many self-published authors, who’ve sold thousands of books, are now being snapped up directly by publishers. Many other authors continue to sell books themselves without the services of an agent or publisher. Some authors are even starting up their own publishing companies or co-operatives.
In this way, readers, bloggers, reviewers and actual sales decide whether a book will live or die on the market and not the agent.
Some authors who are pleased with the services that agents offer, point out that they protect their rights, negotiate deals on their behalf and make sure they are not being exploited by a publisher.
But most agents are not legally trained. They have to go to a publishing lawyer to draw up a contract in the first place. Why not just cut out the middleman and use your own publishing lawyer?
How will agents continue to cope in a world of tighter margins and e-books with no advances?
Should we fear for the future of agents? Are they destined for extinction like the dodo?
Well, as one agent said recently, ‘The big money is in picking up a YouTuber or reality star with tens of millions of followers who’s happy to have their name stuck on a ghost-written book.’
And that may well be the future that keeps the dodo alive.
If you believe in your story.
Your ability to tell it.
Your ability to sell it.
Whether direct to readers or through a publisher.
Then don’t let an agent put you off.
As a former detective in Specialist Operations for Scotland Yard, David Videcette has had plenty of experience in dealing with agents (especially the secret type that work for MI5 and MI6).
He doesn’t write about astronauts or space exploration, but you can learn more about his debut crime thriller which was investigated by the Sunday Telegraph and ITV News, here.
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